Business owner and three-term Peoria City Council member Jim Montelongo is hoping to follow Jim Ardis as the city's as next mayor.
Montelongo is running against fellow council member Rita Ali in the April 6 general election, as Ardis chose not to seek a fifth term. Montelongo received 24% of the vote in last month's five-way primary.
Both Montelongo and Ali recently spoke with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon; our conversation with Ali can be found here. In his interview, Montelongo details his qualifications to hold city's top office.
Joe Deacon: Why are you the best and most qualified candidate to become the next mayor of Peoria?
Jim Montelongo: Just for starters, I have six times more experience than my opponent. I have served one term at-large and I am completing my second term as a District council member. That is eight years, so a total of 12 years all together. I have a proven track record working with the community. In this last eight years as a District councilman, I have created neighborhood associations, neighborhood watch groups.
I've held monthly meetings for 10 years, eight years as a District (councilman) and two years as the at-large council member, where I've worked with people in our community to help solve safety issues in neighborhoods, and other issues that come up throughout our city. I created a business roundtable; I have worked with our businesses in my district, which resulted in it being one of the highest tax revenues for our city.
I have tackled some of the hotspots of crime and in my district. I got a police substation in Northwoods Mall when needed. I have voted against probably every major tax against our taxpayers in our city and against our businesses. So I've demonstrated, I guess, being a fiscal conservative, and (we) can’t forget voting against the Pere Marquette (redevelopment project), which has been very damaging to our city overall.
So I have a proven track record of working with our residents and delivering when it comes time to vote.
Obviously, over the past year COVID-19 has taken a heavy toll on the city's budget and forced many cutbacks, notably in the area of public services. How, specifically, do you plan to address Peoria’s problematic financial situation?
Jim Montelongo: As soon as I'm elected, one thing I want to do is I want to work with each and every one of the council members. I want to sit down and understand what their priorities are, and with that comes that discussion about our finances and how we're going to work together to solve both our short-term and long-term issues with our with our budget. I want to bring forward some of the best minds in that we have in our area to help us with a good finance plan, and, once again, work with the council to see what we can do together to pass a budget that is going to help us move in that right direction.
Specifically, you've touched on your opposition to raising taxes. But how do you generate more revenue for the city to make these budget matters less of a burden?
Jim Montelongo: So, if you take a look at some communities like in Denver or Rochester, N.Y., they were kind of sitting in the same situation that we're in today, and they focused on small and medium-sized businesses. They helped them grow and expand their customer base into new markets, helped them with new ways of thinking on how to do things more efficiently in their business.
So I think working with some sharp minds in our business community; I've certainly had several come forward and say, “Yes, we’ve got to see our businesses grow and expand.” So bringing the right people together with a good plan.
Actually there's a template that we can follow, under the “economic gardening,” because that's the tool that both Denver and Rochester, N.Y., used to grow their community. So when we have about 8,000 businesses in our area, when they're growing employees and they're doing better, that means they're hiring people. So that will result in thousands of new employees or citizens for Peoria, and as well as increased revenues for the city.
We've also mentioned that it along with the budgeting matters, there's the escalating pension obligations that loom large over the city's finances for several years to come. What specific solutions do you see to overcome that dilemma?
Jim Montelongo: Yeah, you know, it's really going to be about how we approach the problem, and once again, we’ve got to get those who understand the pensions really well and those who understand finances. This is a huge, as I was mentioning, $330 million that we have to come up with over the next 20 years and make those payments, and that's going to be very significant on our budget.
We need to find out every option that we have to, so to speak, refinance or remortgage our mortgages if possible. But I think it's going to be those with the banking and/or pensions expertise that can really help us with that. So it's going to be something that we're going to have to do collaboratively, together with the council all together agreeing. But there's no doubt about it, we need a long-term – short, medium and long-term – plan on how we're going to work our way through this.
If economic development holds the key to improving the city's finances, how as mayor will you be able to make Peoria a better place for businesses to locate and develop and grow?
Jim Montelongo: One of the things that worked so well for me was just creating a business roundtable. Even though it was just my district, it was a group of businesses coming together with common goals. They wanted it to be safe, they wanted it to look nice, they wanted to hold each other accountable to the codes. They wanted to be a great shopping experience for people who come into that area.
I think when you get businesses working together, that helps the city, and the results are in there for it being one of the highest tax generators for the city. I want to use that same method throughout our entire city with business roundtables, and/or a larger overall business one that can help with that business growth as well. But the one thing I really learned being on the city council is having these meetings and talking to people, understanding the issues, and then responding with a plan, and I think we can accomplish that with that same method.
Peoria still sees vast racial disparity and inequity on many levels, such as employment, housing, and justice. As mayor, how will you work to eliminate these disparities? What steps need to be taken?
Jim Montelongo: First of all, as I mentioned earlier, I've had these monthly meetings – now they were just to my district, as a district council member – and inside those meetings, you learn a lot about what goes on in neighborhoods. Not only do you learn about the problem, but you also learn solutions from others, so it's kind of coming together to hear the problems, solve the problems, and then taking action with our city staff that results in safer neighborhoods, etc.
I want to be able to do that through all parts of our city, and I think that is an important piece to it all, is to kind of take that same method that I've used with these monthly coffee meetings and moving them throughout our entire city, to be there to listen, get the feedback, and then take action so that all voices are heard. I mentioned doing the same thing with our business roundtable, it's very effective.
So we'll be able to hear from the businesses in different parts of the town and hear what their challenges are, get them working together. Also, as we are working on the economic gardening, there has to be a component to, I would say, diversity and making sure that when people are hiring others that there's a diversity plan to hire and train minorities, and that there's outreach that's available. And as well, making sure that the minority businesses’ voices (are) being heard just as well, so that we are, are responding to their needs just as well.
I’m also part of a group of people who started the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, for example. You’ve got to recognize, whether it's a Hispanic-owned business or an African American-owned business or woman-owned business, everybody seems to have their own challenges; they're not all the same. A lot of them have the same challenges, but some of them have some unique things to them as well. And what's really important for our community is to understand what those uniquenesses are with them, and then help them overcome those hurdles that they have. I think through this business roundtable will be able to help about that as well.
It seems we're starting to turn a bit of a corner on COVID-19, but we may not be entirely out of the woods quite yet. What will be your approach to dealing with the pandemic and aiding recovery from it?
Jim Montelongo: One of the things that needs to happen is an immediate plan to try and get every one of our businesses open and running at full capacity, of course following CDC guidelines, and getting a good understanding on where they're at today and what is it that they need to go forward. I know the city has been a recipient of a lot of funding from federal government to help our small businesses; we need to make sure that they know about that and that they're applying for this.
On our city side, we need to make sure that we're making this application process easy for them to apply and get access to these grants. It might not be a lot of money, but certainly some money is better than the none. I think it's like maybe $10,000-$20,000 that they can apply for through that grant process. I know it worked very well the first time around, so we're on that second round right now. But that's what we need to be able to focus on with our small businesses, whether the retail or restaurants: getting them back on their feet.
From a health care standpoint regarding the pandemic though, what precautions still need to be taken to make sure that we don't have some sort of reversal or backslide?
Jim Montelongo: So, it looks like there's light at the end of the tunnel with all COVID-19, and what we need to make sure – I think our area and our region has done very well following the guidelines – we need to make sure that we're following them. That that's what's winning the war, I guess, on this here is following the strict guidelines. I think it's in the data as well; I think we heard a report last week that Peoria is one of the best cities in the state for handling and dealing with COVID-19. So we're on the right track.
Across the country, we've seen the political divide expand in recent years. How do you intend to govern for all the people of Peoria and collaborate with the entire city council to get the city's work done?
Jim Montelongo: Yeah, that's, that's exactly it. It starts with our city council, and I'm glad that we're a nonpartisan council. I want to work with each and every one of our council members; I know that part is important. I want to understand what they want to see accomplished, or the feedback that they're hearing from their constituent base, and how it applies to delivering basic city services or in leadership way and how we can improve our city.
But it's important to meet with everybody, get an understanding for what they want to accomplish. That kind of covers a good portion of our city, whether we're talking first (through) fifth districts, or the at-large members who represent all areas of our city. But once again, I really like getting out there and meeting with people throughout everywhere in our city. Hearing and listening to people is really, really important; probably the biggest part of the job is listening to people.
One area of interest that seems to come up in municipal elections everywhere is the quality of the roads, and Peoria is definitely no exception with that. Given the current budget restrictions, how can the city go about improving the quality of the streets?
Jim Montelongo: We've been lucky to be a recipient for some of the pandemic relief, and I'm hoping after the council gets a chance to meet and talk about this, we can figure out – since we postponed a lot of projects last year, a lot of capital improvements last year – that we can get back on that and immediately have some wins on fixing our roads. So I'm hoping that's what happens right away with this council.
With where Peoria is today and its potential for the future, where do you see the city in two or five or 10 years from now?
Jim Montelongo: I think where we're going to be at, I'm sure if we're doing all the right things as I'm talking about, especially with the business roundtables, that we're going to see an economic boom in our community. And that's (when) we'll start to see Peoria being the recipient of all the work that we're doing, trying to grow our businesses. I think we'll see a big rebound in our economy overall, and we'll see Peoria as a place for economic opportunity.
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